Billing office faces criticism

NILES — Even as the city struggled through fiscal emergency over the last three years, the former administration and service directors handed out discounts on utility bills, the service director said.

“I don’t know if it was an administrative oversight. I don’t know if it’s incompetence. I don’t know what it is. But what I do know is the comedy of errors in that office is nauseating,” said Robert Marino, city council president.

The issue brought to light Sept. 20 is just the latest “embarrassing situation” to rise out of the billing office in recent years, Marino said.

There were “pages and pages” listing accounts that were given sewer bill discounts and it was a practice that continued until some time this year, said Service Director Edward Stredney.

The office recently realized it was giving free sewer service to about 100 residents of McKinley Heights over the last five years.

City council placed a flat $25 fee on the customers, who haven’t been sent bills for five years, when the office switched software and forgot to put the fees into the system, Stredney said. The error cost nearly $170,000, according to Stredney’s estimate.

The office came under fire before when utility customers complained their bills were incorrect and it was revealed that a lack of meter readers meant they were getting computer-estimated bills.

Stredney said the city’s new policy is to never give a discount unless the board of control or city council approves it. If there is an error on the bill, that will be corrected by office staff, Stredney said.

“People were upset and they would go in there and argue. It was under the discretion of the service director and the mayor,” Stredney said.

“I am furious that this occurred. There needs to be administrative controls put in place,” Marino said.

Mayor Tom Scarnecchia said he has never been approached by someone seeking a discount.

Councilman Stephen Papalas, D-at large, said council tried to straighten out excessive discounts years ago by appropriating overtime money for staff to go through the utility accounts.

But the employees would mark an account to be corrected and it wouldn’t be, Papalas said.

“We’ve had problems going back for years. And there was an attempt to straighten things out. But it didn’t always work out that way because there were other people involved in the decision making,” Papalas said.

The overtime funding was pulled before the monumental task could be completed, Papalas said.

The billing office manager, Stephanie Ford, was not at the council meeting.

Stredney said he would prepare a detailed report for city council about the discounts.